An excerpt from


by David S. Bennahum

When We Were Young

In the Golden Age of ASCII, kids could be king

This excerpt first appeared in the September 1998 issue of Wired magazine (Wired 6.09).

For the few of us into computers at Horace Mann in 1982, the computer room on the third floor of Tillinghast Hall was the greatest place at school. With its lead-paned windows overlooking the football field, its polished floor and rows of terminals in tidy rows, the computer room existed as our private library and club room. During free periods, when other kids might go outside to play touch football or gossip in the cafeteria, I could be found upstairs at a terminal, playing games and programming with my friends. There, amid the silence, interrupted by the clicking of keys and the soft tapping of chalk on the blackboard, we competed fiercely to be the best programmers. It was a place where things happened quietly, but explosively.

Pranks were a natural part of the room. I'd written programs that fooled seventh-graders into thinking our shared computer, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11, was conscious. Others had found ways to fool skilled programmers into thinking the computer could no longer add properly (2 + 2 = 5!). Creativity ran rampant. The walls were covered with elegant "ASCII art" ­ pictures of Snoopy and the New York skyline we'd made from collections of letters that from a distance assembled themselves into an image. A few had mastered the eight-pen color plotter, learning to produce marvelous geometric shapes, swirling vortices, and rippling landscapes. I was in awe of some of the older kids who'd reverse-engineered the PDP's operating system and were trying to build a new one from scratch.

The computer room was also a safe haven, a family of sorts. We were mostly boys ­ though a few girls spent time there ­ and many of us came from families with divorced parents. I faced turmoil at home, living between my mom and dad, separated from my sister. Another boy, Misha, faced such acrimony at home as his parents underwent a particularly bitter breakup that he threw himself into programming with relentless intensity, eventually creating an after-school business writing programs for Wall Street corporations and earning enough money to pay for college himself. In the computer room, all the worries of the real world faded away, replaced by the exhilaration of the quest, a gleeful sense of discovery, and the joy of being best at something.

I was exposed to a remarkable computer curriculum, and nearly everything I know about computers and technology comes from those years on the third floor of Tillinghast. My friends and I were among the first at our Bronx school, and in America, to have computers at home. At 13 I owned an Atari 800 with 48K of RAM; Jeremy Bozza had an Apple II; Misha had a TRS-80; others had Commodore 64s and VIC-20s. At school we used the PDP, which, like our early home computers, was special because it was so transparent. The barrier between us and the machine was low; we could fairly easily get to the innards of it. I